May 5, 2018

Dependent Developers

Rumors are circulating that Apple plans to merge iOS and macOS in some mysterious way. Michael Tsai, whose weblog has become necessary reading, has a good rundown of the major players’ opinions. Brent Simmons, now at Omni Group, wrote a very sensible piece on the possibly-mythical merger, which he names “Godot.framework”. Dave Winer (to whom great birthday greetings!) wrote a fine reply.

That reply, titled “Dependent Developers,” begins:

Reading Brent's piece about Mac development made me think about the ideal, what I really want from being a developer for as long as I've been a developer. The thing that got me started was the independence of it. I could have taken a job at Bell Labs or some big mainframe or minicomputer company, and had a nice career being pushed around by bosses at big companies. But I went for PC development because it was something I controlled. I could do what I wanted. Make my own art. The things I wanted to do were things no company would approve of, they had no way of understanding it. And at first it was lovely. Then the corporate bosses at the PC companies started pushing us around and it turned to shit.

Now, of course this is going to catch my eye, with its insistence that what we do is art. Dave was coding when I was a graduate student and he’s coding now, long after the people who didn’t think this was art have left for management or hedge funds. But there’s another note that runs through the entire developer discussion that Dave makes really clear:

…it turned to shit.

I don’t think it’s quite that bad. But then again, I’m the guy who wrote that

We software creators woke up one day to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else. We are unhappy with our modern computing and alienated from our work, we experience constant, inexorable guilt.

So it’s not a cakewalk. What changed? What went wrong, and when did it go wrong?

When personal computing got started, you could make pretty serious money by creating a good tool that people needed. Dave did that with MORE. Dan Bricklin did it with VisiCalc. Mitch Kapor with Agenda. There were lots more. No guarantees, certainly, and some good and smart people never got the big payday, but it was a real possibility.

That’s gone. The real money in iOS software comes from writing frauds and manipulating sad psychological quirks; it turns out that just about nobody makes a living, much less a killing, designing great iOS software. The economics are better on the desktop, but not much better.

The big fear from the iOS-macOS rumor is that Apple will destroy that, that they’ll cripple the Macintosh so badly that we’ll be left with a complete wasteland of 99¢ junk apps. There’s no place to run, no other viable desktop with a future.

Worse, it’s not clear what we can do. This reflects our current political emergency. Ignorant and wicked people control the government, propped up by chortling billionaires, corrupt evangelical hucksters, and resentful wing nuts; we can work to end the nightmare but the road is long and uncertain. The future of computing now seems to depend on the whims of a few businessmen, none of whom appears to care very much about computing.

Then again, Tinderbox 7.5 is coming. Tinderbox had its best year ever in 2017. We have wonderful tools; the new iMac Pro isn’t the Mac Pro we need and Xcode crashes an awful lot, but the two together are fast. I remember when you had to wait overnight to find out about a syntax error, when you edited with punched cards. (Dave remembers, too.) I read the entire History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, all 15 volumes, while waiting for Metrowerks to compile Fontina and Storyspace, and now I compile Tinderbox and run all 1317 unit tests in something like 3 minutes. We write stuff that we’d never have been able to write back then, stuff we couldn't imagine.

Hard times may be coming. Pogroms may be coming. We’ll bear the burden and pay the price if we must. Meanwhile, back to making some more art.